I’m not sure where it begins, but I’m more than a little concerned at where it seems to be going. I’m sure you all know about the deeply embarrassing (for its patron) closure of the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health, a charity which openly campaigned for alternative medical `treatments’ (charities are not supposed to campaign). At the time I wondered why the Charity Commission didn’t investigate it a long time before the debacle, as `significant financial loss’ is a cause for investigation.
But it seems that you can set up a charity to do almost anything you want. The Commission defines charities as “voluntary organisations which benefit the public in a way the law says is charitable”. What is not defined is how they assess benefit to the public. I will take as examples two charities that have caught my attention recently, The Maun Homeopathy Project and CancerActive.
The first of these horrified me. Africa has quite enough of a problem with HIV and AIDS, without deranged quacks distracting poor and vulnerable people with unproven `remedies’. OK, there is nothing that I can find at www.homeopathybotswana.com to suggest that patients are being taken off proper treatment, or that homeopathy is being offered as a cure for AIDS. All that I have read is entirely compatible with any benefit being related to counselling and not from homeopathy. Some would say this is acceptable, and a useful role for placebos. I say that the last thing Africa needs is another dose of superstition and quackery – it has more than enough of those. The greatest gift we can offer emerging countries is that of education and knowledge. This charity is offering the opposite. It is rather reminiscent of tobacco companies, who find very limited sales growth in developed countries and are turning to the third world to recruit more victims.
So I reported this to the Charity Commission, on the basis that there was no public benefit. Needless to say my complaint was rejected – here is the reply:
Thank you for your e-mail.
I am sorry to learn of your concerns about the charity.
However I have examined your comments and would conclude that this is not an issue we can become involved in. We are unable to intercede in a difference of opinion relating to the validity or otherwise of medical ethics.
I would add that The House of Lords Select Committee determined that Homeopathy is a ‘Group 1’ therapy. Charitable organisations that provide therapies that fall within the Group 1 category of ‘well known’ therapies do not generally need to provide further evidence of efficacy before we accept that these therapies are effacious (sic) in the relief of illness.
The Maun Homeopathy Project is established for the following purposes;
‘To relieve sickness and distress and protect and preserve health, particularly but not exclusively of the people of Maun, Botswana and surrounding areas, who are suffering from HIV and AIDs and the trauma of rape by the provision of homeopathic health care with the object of improving their conditions of life and their physical and well being’
The charity specifically states that is does not provide a cure and this can be viewed using the link below:
Charities are independent organisations, and their trustees are legally responsible for all aspects of their management and administration.
Complaints about the treatment methods vaunted by a charity should be addressed to the trustees in the first instance. Contact details can be found on our website:
We would always encourage charities to have appropriate procedures for dealing with complaints about their services and to respond to complaints in a timely manner. However, ultimately this is an aspect of the administration of the charity which is the responsibility of the trustees.
If there were evidence that the charity was causing serious harm to beneficiaries we would investigate the organisation further, however, it would be unfair to act on unsubstantiated allegations or opinions which could disrupt a charity’s work.
Thank you for bringing these matters to our attention. I hope that I have explained why the Charity Commission will not be taking any further action.
I trust this information is of some assistance to you.
I suppose I should not expect an administrator in a public quango to have much understanding of evidence, but this does cause me some concern. My allegations are apparently `unsubstantiated’. Well the position as to evidence for homeopathy is hardly unsubstantiated, and the charity openly admits to giving it to poor people in Africa. Then, what I say is apparently `opinion’ – as usual the writer can’t tell the difference between opinion and evidence. Yes, I really do want to disrupt the charity’s work!
I put this on the back burner, but then was even more incensed by the claim from the notorious Cancer Active that “homeopathy reverses cancer”. This clearly breaches not only the standards for a charity, but most likely the Cancer Act 1939. So in went another complaint. This time I got a more extensive reply, as follows:
Thank you for your email dated 22 March 2012.
Thank you for contacting us recently and raising your concerns about Cancer Active. We have looked carefully at the information you have provided and appreciate the time you have taken to send this to the Charity Commission.
Our publication Complaints About Charities (CC47) explains in detail what issues we can look into and how to let us know about them. This can be downloaded from our website:
We have assessed your complaint in relation to the criteria that are set out in our published guidance. I am writing to explain that the Commission does not consider that the complaint falls into the category of complaints that we take up and therefore we will not be taking any further action.
When we receive a complaint that has been assessed as not meeting our criteria, we will keep the information on record and acknowledge your complaint, but will not take any further action.
Making a complaint about a charity
We receive a number of different types of complaints about charities, but there are only certain kinds of complaints we can get involved with. Essentially, we want to know if there is a serious risk of significant harm to or abuse of a charity, its assets, beneficiaries or reputation and we will take action if our intervention is a necessary and proportionate response to protect them.
However, we have found that the majority of complaints we receive should be made directly to the charity itself rather than the Charity Commission. These complaints include ones about the services a charity provides, employment issues, fundraising methods and internal disputes.
The concerns that you have raised are not matters that the Charity Commission can offer advice on because they are not within our regulatory role. It is important to emphasise that although the Commission’s functions include encouraging and facilitating the better administration of charities, and taking remedial action to tackle misconduct or mismanagement, the law prohibits the Commission from acting directly in the administration of a charity. Trustees are the managers of their charities and it is their job to make the administrative and strategic decisions necessary for their charities’ proper and effective management.
The important point to note here is that any decision with regard to the content of a charity’s website has to be taken by the trustees. The Commission cannot direct the trustees to take one particular course of action or another. Neither does the Commission have discretion to overrule the trustees’ validly taken decision on the grounds that others take a different view, however strongly held.
Given that your concerns are not within the regulatory role of the Charity Commission we will not respond to any further correspondence from you on this issue. You can find further information about our regulatory role on our website.
I hope that I have explained why the Charity Commission will not be taking any further action.
Note the warning that they are not going to respond to me again about this. However there is more to it than even the staggeringly dangerous `advice’ that this charity provides. It is operated by one Chris Woollams MA (Oxon) (the usual paid MA I suspect). He shamelessly includes a link to his Natural Selection Shop, which I am sorry to say sells products from the arch-quack Joe Mercola (he of FDA warning letters that he wears like badges of honour, eg this, and this). Let’s look again at the Charity Commission site – they say that one of the issues they want people to tell them about is “charities deliberately being used for significant private advantage”. I can’t think of a better example than this, a charity blatantly linking its website to a business, and even promoting products on the charity’s site.
But there’s more. Woollams’ business is actually called Chris Woollams 4 Health Ltd, a company registered in the British Virgin Islands. Now why the British Virgin Islands, a well known (former) tax haven? The company claims it is not for profit, and then says “Any profits we do make will go to a Foundation, set up to help people with cancer”. So does it make profits or not? Why does it need to be registered offshore? Where and what is this `Foundation’?
Woollams’ business links with the charity are not confined to his online shop. The latest accounts for Cancer Active make interesting reading. Income for 2010-11 was £205,509, a substantial amount for a small charity. Of this, £86,714 came from sale of products, for at least some of which (as we have seen) excessive claims are being made. I am not even sure whether sale of products is allowed, bearing in mind the charity’s stated aims. But I am slightly more interested in the amount of £25,397 owed to Health Issues Ltd (see section 8 Creditors). What is Health Issues Ltd? It appears to be involved in publishing. According to Companies House, its directors are Jane Reynolds and Lindsey Fealey, but more to the point a past director who resigned in 2010 was one Christopher Woollams. By this time you might have guessed that both Cancer Active and Health Issues Ltd are registered at The Elms, Radclive Road, Gawcott, Bucks, MK18 4JB – and you would be right.
The other odd thing is that Chris Woollams is not a trustee of Cancer Active. The three trustees are Larry Brooks, Elaine Tipton and the aforementioned Lindsey Fealey, who is given on the Charity Commission website as the main contact, not Chris Woollams as per the Cancer Active site. Of course, trustees are not allowed to profit personally from a charity – do you see a pattern forming here?
Well the Commission refuses to listen to me about this, so what about a concerted effort from some of you good people? Just go to the Charity Commission complaints site and state that Cancer Active is failing to operate for the public benefit, and is being used for business purposes. Please note that you don’t have to go through the first step of complaining to the charity, because using it for private advantage is considered a serious issue.
Meanwhile, I have also reported Cancer Active to Trading Standards which notes that products are being promoted, so that puts the charity within their remit.